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Florida can't afford a bad attorney general

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- William Allen White, a small-town newspaper editor, won instant fame with his scathing anti-Populist editorial of 1896, What's The Matter With Kansas? Among his many complaints: The Populists had "discovered a kid without a law practice and have decided to run him for attorney general."

That line is now worth a good laugh in Florida, where three of the five current declared candidates for attorney general could spend the entire campaign quarrelling over who has the least legal experience.

Republican Locke Burt, a Republican senator from Ormond Beach, doesn't practice law. He runs an insurance company. However, he has shown legal acumen as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he has notably defended open government and the independence of the courts.

Education Commissioner Charlie Crist, the Republican who has raised the most money, never reported any significant income from his law office while he was in the Florida Senate. Earlier, Crist was general counsel for minor league baseball, which would not have qualified him for a county judgeship.

Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox is affiliated with a major state law firm, but he has been a member of the Bar for only seven years, just two more than the Constitution requires.

None of the three is rated by Martindale-Hubble, the national legal directory.

The candidates with the more traditional legal credentials are Republican Tom Warner, a former state senator who is now Florida's solicitor general, and Democrat Buddy Dyer, a state senator. Both have had private practices that earned them Martindale-Hubble's highest rating, av.

But this is, after all, the Great State of Florida, where candidates usually finish in inverse order to their qualifications. So it is Crist, who disclosed that he had twice flunked the Bar exam, who is heavily favored to win. In his third statewide race, he is hugely ahead in money and enjoys the outward (but inwardly nervous) approval of the Republican hierarchy and the Bush administration, who consider Warner too liberal and Burt too independent.

We may not have seen all the candidates yet. George Sheldon, a deputy attorney general and former House member who lost to Crist in the last education commissioner's race, is seriously contemplating a rematch for this much more important prize. Some colleagues expect him to announce Tuesday. He would have to overcome Dyer's $400,000 lead in public fundraising, but his prior statewide exposure would help. So would his identification with Bob Butterworth, the very popular but term-limited incumbent.

Though it's the governor's race that obsesses the media, the campaign for attorney general is at least as important to Florida's future, if not more so. A re-elected Jeb Bush would be a lame duck, gone in four years. A new attorney general is likely to command that office for eight years and could easily be governor for eight more.

A new attorney general could, of course, commit some awful misstep and have a short tenure. That's what worries the GOP about Crist, who has already slipped on a legal banana peel by threatening to block payroll deduction of teacher union dues. (He backed off.) Such a faux pas in the AG's office might be good news for the other party, but not for the state.

For more than 30 years, under three attorneys general, the office has distinguished itself for being apolitcal, honest, and aggressively committed to fighting against consumer fraud and for the environment. When Jeb Bush encouraged legislators to send him the notorious land grab bill, forfeiting the public's right to hundreds of miles of lakefronts and riverbanks, it was Butterworth who rallied senators of both parties to bury it.

Florida could more easily afford a bad governor than a bad attorney general. The same would be true of most if not all other states.

Candidates often encourage the misperception that the attorney general's office is solely about crime. The Constitution makes the governor the chief state law enforcement officer. The governor oversees the elected prosecutors. As chief state legal officer, the attorney general handles criminal appeals and advises and defends state agencies. His only prosecutorial function is to appoint the statewide prosecutor. Career professionals run criminal appeals. Any new attorney general would be an utter fool to do anything but leave them on autopilot.

It's the attorney general's civil powers that make the choice of occupant so critically important. Butterworth, Florida's longest-serving AG, has waged (and won) so many antitrust and consumer fraud cases that AdWeek magazine ranked him among the nation's "10 Most Feared Attorneys General." It was a great compliment. His departure will mark the most vivid example of the huge mistake voters made when they fell for term limits. In selecting his successor, will they make another?

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